Wineskins Archive

December 3, 2013

Sandy Hook and the Crisis of Mental Health (Jan 2013)

Filed under: — @ 4:08 pm and

By Joshua Jeffery

The shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a national tragedy to say the least. Twenty children and six adults were brutally murdered, and many news accounts are saying that the suspect was mentally ill.

Several days before the Sandy Hook incident, another shooting occurred at the Clackamas Town Center Mall near Portland, Oregon at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Three people were killed before the gunman turned the gun on himself. For full disclosure, I used to live less than a mile away from this mall, and my family and I still frequent it often.

After times of senseless violence such as this, it can be hard to know what to say. Everyone wants a solution, and many want a way to explain why this would happen. Many Christians want to use God as an explanatory tool to describe why this occurred. Mike Huckabee, who as an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention should know better, made one of the poorest statements of theodicy this side of Pat Robertson when he declared that this occurred because we “took God out of the public schools.” While I don’t want to make this article an examination of the problem of theodicy, or the problem of evil and why bad things happen when God exists, I do have to ask Huckabee and other Christians who believe that this mindless violence occurred because of this idea that we “took God out of the public schools,” why this type of violence isn’t occurring in schools in other nations that have also removed, or that have never allowed, public prayer and directed Bible reading to occur in their school systems?

Some Christians, many of them my friends, have rushed to call for gun control legislation. Other Christians, also friends, have rushed the other direction, with familiar shouts that “guns don’t kill people,” and instead insist that we should loosen gun control restrictions and create an even more armed society. Both sides are actually making valid arguments. On the gun control side, America has more guns per capita than any other country, and we have the highest level of gun violence in the developed world. Might there be a correlation? On the pro-gun side, these groups are also correct. Guns don’t kill people. People with guns (and many other objects) kill people. People are the real problem, not instruments. Personally, however, I think both sides are missing the point.

Making guns harder to purchase, or giving every person who wants a gun the opportunity to own one is not going to solve our violence problem. Japan provides a great example of how to reduce gun violence: take all the guns away. In 2008, Japan had 11 deaths attributed to firearms violence. But let’s face the political reality: guns are not going away in the United States. There are 890 guns for every 1,000 people in this country. If many of those guns weren’t owned by the same person, that would mean that practically speaking, 89% of the population owns a firearm. The so-called right of self-defense is too strongly engrained here for a full gun ban to ever take hold in the United States. Even if the political will existed, which it doesn’t, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently been in the mood to overturn gun control legislation. Furthermore, most of what has been passing for “gun control” legislation in this country has truly been ineffective. The “assault weapons ban” that was passed under Clinton, and expired under Bush, that many progressives are calling for, didn’t actually ban weapons based on their function. It banned them for cosmetic reasons. You could buy gun A, which functioned just like banned gun B, simply because gun A looked different than gun B. True, it did reduce the number of rounds that new magazines could hold, but the old magazines were still legal and available, and anyone bent on a killing rampage needed only to purchase multiple magazines and reload. In other words, whatever gun control laws will actually end up being passed will be largely ineffective.

So, what can we practically do, and specifically, what should the response be of people who proclaim to be disciples of Jesus? This is a much harder question to answer, however, there are answers. I’ll take the liberty of proposing one now (there are many more that I won’t address here).

Most of the suspects involved in mass shootings are mentally ill. Let’s face reality: sane people don’t go on shooting rampages. People who enjoy good mental health have coping mechanisms that allow them to solve their problems without resorting to gross physical violence. There is a mental health crisis occurring in this country, and we as a nation, and especially as Christians, need to respond. Mental illnesses can be treated, but often go untreated. One of my own extended family members suffers from mental illness. He lives on social security disability and receives state health benefits to pay for his medication. However, his county doctors, who are revolving because most doctors don’t want to work for the poor wages a county health department provides, have many patients and don’t spend the time they need to monitor their patients. Often, his medications need to be adjusted, and they aren’t adjusted correctly because no one is paying attention. He would like to work, but if he gets a job, he loses his health benefits, including his medication. I have seen him take a job several times, only to lose it because he loses his health benefits and goes off his medication, making him unstable. He has been unable to find a job that will provide health benefits. Similarly, he has attempted to go back to school so that he can gain job skills so that he can get a job that would provide insurance, but the state and social security have dropped his coverage when they found out he was enrolled. It is a vicious cycle. While he is not a violent person at all, his mental illness in the past has manifested itself violently. This is well known to the mental health system. The pitfalls of this system are well known to many in the community, including politicians, yet they do nothing to change the system.

We as Christians must be willing to step up the plate and demand change in the current mental health system. Furthermore, we must be willing to pay for it. Many, and I would hazard to guess that a majority, of those who are mentally ill in our country, are covered by public insurance, or are not covered at all. I can tell you from over ten years of experience working in law enforcement that the majority of the people who are homeless are mentally ill, and that is why they are on the street. These people are not lazy, as many conservative Christians like to think and proclaim, but instead they are sick. They need help. They need to be under the care of a qualified mental health professional—one who doesn’t have a massive load of patients—and they need medication and/or therapy. Many will say that we can’t afford to pay for mental health coverage for these folks. This is simply not true. We can afford it. The question is not whether or not we can afford it, but whether or not we want to spend the money on it. So far, the answer has been “no.” Truth be told, the United States could do without a few new fighters or bombers in order to pay for mental health care in this country. We could reduce the size of our military (and reduce the number of mental health cases the military produces through both basic training and combat) and use the savings to finance mental health care in this country. The ability to fix our mental health issues is there.

Do we have the courage to act?

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